Travel and wildlife photos

As I didn’t have much time to post travel and wildlife pics on my recent trip to California, I’ll try to post a few every day.

On the day after arrival, we visited Año Nuevo State Park near Santa Cruz, one of the protected sites where Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) bask and breed. Thanks to reader and biologist Bruce Lyon, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of California at Santa Cruz, we were given special access to a restricted beach where bachelor males and young seals were resting before going to see to feed.  On the drive to the beach from Santa Cruz, we saw tons of birds, especially brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis).

A young gull:  According to Bruce, this is actually a cool gull, and an adult. His description:

The “young gull” with the red beak is a Heermann’s Gull adult (Larus heermanni). They are interesting because they breed mostly in Mexico but have a reverse migration and head north after breeding. They show up here in late summer. There is a tiny breeding colony down by Monterey—they apparently breed on the roof of a building owned by baseball legend Reggie Jackson. He does not want the gulls breeding on his building so he put netting up and they no longer breed there.

The trek to the beach over the dunes. Walking on loose sand, especially uphill, was pretty hard. We were accompanied by three naturalists who studied the sea lions, all arranged by Bruce, in the middle here with his big lens. We all had to wear “UCSC Research” jackets so the rangers wouldn’t mistake us for interlopers. It was a swell visit.

When we got there, there were tons of fat seals lazing on the sand. These are big ‘uns: as Wikipedia notes,

“The huge male northern elephant seal typically weighs 1,500–2,300 kg (3,300–5,100 lb) and measures 4–5 m (13–16 ft), although some males can weigh up to 3,700 kg (8,200 lb). Females are much smaller and can range from 400 to 900 kg (880 to 1,980 lb) in weight, or roughly a third of the male’s bulk, and measure from 2.5 to 3.6 m (8.2 to 11.8 ft).”

The males have long noses to help them vocalize (this is all about sex and female choice, of course, as males contribute nothing to offspring care). Here are some pictures:

A beach full o’ seals:

Two males engaging in mock combat (during real fights, they bloody each other’s necks with their sharp teeth, and can even kill each other):

But they are ineffably cute:

Most of them are tagged with markers like this one (I think it goes through the flipppers):

A piece of molted sea lion skin found by one of the naturalists:

Two videos. The lassitude of the colony is broken up only by mock fights and the constant flinging of sand over the seals’ backs with their flippers. That serves as both sunscreen and to cool the sea lions, as the whitish sand masks the dark, sun-absorbing coat:

The seals move with difficulty, humping their blubbery bodies along the beach. Despite that, they can move with surprising speed, though they can’t catch a fleeing human. (We weren’t allowed to get closer than 20 feet anyway, so we didn’t disturb them.)

Two out-of-focus brown pelicans:

After the seal viewing, Bruce afforded a tour of a nearby redwood trail in Butano State Park, which was lovely. Along the way he heard bird calls, and tried to call them in using a bluetooth box connected to bird songs on his smartphone. We didn’t manage to lure in birds, but apparently during the mating season you can get the birds to come right up to your face (the males respond to calls in a territorial way). Here is a big banana slug (Areiolimax columbianus), the official mascot of the University of California at Santa Cruz:

And a Pacific Slope Flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis) nest inside a shattered tree:

Here’s a photo of that lovely bird from Wikipedia:


  1. Posted September 19, 2018 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    You know the roolz! Species names pretty please! 😉
    Is that a Heermann’s gull Larus heermanni? I lurve gulls…
    I also love slugs so this is a great post!
    Banana slug could it seems be one of three species…

  2. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Great pictures! Wish I could see a banana slug.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Walking on loose sand, especially uphill, was pretty hard.

    I recall climbing the dunes at Sleeping Bear National Park on the shore of Lake Michigan, near Traverse City. It was a brisk workout, even in my salad days.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted September 19, 2018 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      When we were kids we had to walk to school in the deep snow, up hill both ways. I’m sorry, could not help it.

  4. rickflick
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    “Walking on loose sand”
    I grew up on Lake Michigan and remember in summer trudging over the dunes to reach the beach. Like walking with weights. With the right pressure the sand would squeak under your heal. The extra effort seemed like a trial by fire if you had bare feet and the sun had been beating down. The walk was rewarded by a run into the cool water(68 or 70 degrees). I try not to take silicon for granted.

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Molting mammals?

    • rickflick
      Posted September 19, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      An evolutionary adaptation to the practice of seal hunting. 😉

  6. yazikus
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Fantastic shots!

    • Glenda Palmer
      Posted September 19, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink


      • Kiwi Dave
        Posted September 19, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        Yep. The colour and shape combinations in the first two pelican shots and the shattered tree turn these photos into engrossing art.

  7. Derek Freyberg
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    While Año Nuevo seems to have the seals “fenced off” quite a lot of the time, there is a beach near San Simeon, Piedras Blancas, where US Highway 101 runs right along the coast, where the seals can be seen closeup by anyone. A Google search for “elephant seal beach” will find it.

  8. Mark R.
    Posted September 19, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    You sure got to see some lovely wildlife in California…especially the mammalian behemoths.

  9. Posted September 19, 2018 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Just a swift ornithology PSA – Calling birds in with recordings of their songs is generally frowned upon. It is done by many researchers who are carrying out research but they try to limit the number of times they do it – presumably like Prof Lyon. If it were just a few people doing it it probably wouldn’t matter but in some heavily-birded areas one could sometimes see group after group of birders playing calls and drawing in territorial birds – this must have an impact on the birds, taking away from foraging time etc. Some birding tours now specifically ban it.

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